Burst City

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September 20, 2011 by Mark Mesaros

“Don’t fuck with me!!”, reads the final caption against the male shriek of The Stalin’s vocalist, the closing salvo to a barrage of 100+ minutes, a barrage that begins and ends with a breakneck joyride over asphalt roads and highways, the lights of industry whipping by abstractedly. Influential cult director Sogo Ishii’s Burst City is loud, crusty, explosive, deranged, supercharged cinema; something of a feature-length music video of the apocalypse. The man who would later helm the cool, binary distillation of tartan rage that was Electric Dragon 80.000 V delivers a chunky, blistering epic of punk nihilism served up in great swaths by car freaks, metal fetishist mutants (a la Mad Max or punk-metal gurus GWAR), yakuza thugs and sickos, heavily armed yet ineffectual police and vile punk rockers, all denizens of a gutted, swollen dystopia – uniformly violent, sexed and bursting with amphetamines. Frenetic, almost flying camerawork guides this visionary amalgam of sci-fi and music as director Ishii hyper-edits the carnage and says “fuck all” to coherence, opting instead to launch a guided missile at our nerves.

Ostensibly, we have four or five distinct milieus, made distinct not so much by the environs as by their barely-sketched inhabitants. And even then things are screwy. Without provocation, the camera may depart one group and sidle up to another. We’re never given the indication that any of this is supposed to be important or connected in any meaningful way, though there’s a sense of some black event impending. A leather-clad, tattooless yakuza belittles, tortures and strangles a nameless prostitute in some kind of densely technicolor three mat room containing only a bed and floor enough to grope someone mercilessly on. She’s saved too late by another gangster who delights in pummeling her assailant. End of story. Another tangent sees hip motorists drag race on the outskirts of The City, the men prized by hangers-on groupies for their shimmery eye makeup. Here, as in every facet of this non-linear ‘story’, the mode is one of fierce competition, exultation in winning it and stabs of perverse comedy which includes severed pig heads being thrown at Star Wars-inspired militants.

The roving, hand-held POV shot is prodigiously affected by Ishii, groping its way through itinerant mobs of angry rockers, running headlong into battle with opposing tribes of misanthropic youths, sailing around drug-addled encampments, mosh pits, acting as another cipher in a petri dish of ciphers, another crazy body looking to score and fight. Elsewhere, Ishii repeats and deletes. Experimental short film techniques abound. Appearing a half-dozen times is an ominous face, agape and enshrouded by shadow, partially alight with strobe and almost a different color every time you see it, which is usually all of five seconds.

What is cyberpunk? Only diehards claim to know. Released a full year before Bruce Bethke coined the term1 and two years before the genre’s seminal thrust came in the form of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, Burst City seems to be another of those science fictions that forecast it, along with another film from 1982, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. But Burst City, and Ishii’s work in general, is merely dystopian, weird and vaguely high tech; the film doesn’t broach topics such as cybernetics, artificial intelligence or, indeed, any topics at all. There’s virtually no sophistry to be gleaned from its frames. Burst City is a guttural scream at an abyss.

This is a very different kind of science fiction, yet in some ways definitive for its genre as it would go on to have a large, unheralded influence on the course of Japanese filmmaking, cyberpunk as a distinct aesthetic and the punk ethos as an artistic point of departure. This film exhales nihilistic rage and exudes carnality, its formal qualities so thoroughly intermingled with its fiction it easily paralyzes and subsumes the viewer into its future hell. This is a film of noise and speed, tantalizingly blinkered, not the staid philosophic formalism of a Ridley Scott actioner. Its influence is most apparent in the kinetic work of Shinya Tsukamoto; I can’t imagine we’d have Tetsuo without it.

Immediate aesthetic sensibilities aside, I think Linklater’s Slacker garners the most enlightening comparison— Burst City is the upper-driven version of Slacker’s downer raison d’être. Both are films with a singular purpose, though Linklater’s has a metafictional gambit. What I find difficult to reconcile is the enormous appeal for me of Ishii’s film and my patent dislike of Linklater’s. Slacker effectively translates its narrative aims (or aimlessness) into its formal presentation; Burst City does the same, and meanders to a similar degree, but instead allows a speed freak to give you an interior tour of an amplifier tube. Is it because the mundanity depicted in the former already closely conforms to my everyday experience of things and is therefore only a mirror? Is it because I seek the kind of escape from life offered by the latter? Probably. But it’s mostly an escape from sobriety and a hurtling into the imaginary.

Brimming with fun and bolstered by filthy, vulgar, riff-heavy Japanese punk, Burst City is a joy to behold or be transfixed by, a sumptuous repast for the adrenaline starved. More importantly, it revels in all the impossibilities of which the medium is capable. The film’s real test is one of endurance. Ishii allows this to go on for far too long for any sober viewer to master it; his intended audience was surely the ravenous kind depicted, though we never see screen evidence of stimulants being abused. Ultimately, this a dream come true for club patrons or dive bar performers in need of a backdrop – I can see Burst City’s unrelenting visuals blasting standing-room only mobs against experimental aural excursions courtesy of the local noise duo. Is it a lasting work of feature film art? No, but thrillingly digested in small quantities. Revolutionary? I would say so. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal favorite – even if I never again see its entirety.

1 Found here, his short story “Cyberpunk”, apparently written in 1980, was first published in AMAZING Science Fiction Stories in November of 1983.

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